I can still remember every moment of this day, 11 years ago. I remember going to class at the Community College I was attending for a semester. I remember getting in my car and driving the short distance to my part time job at a children's photography studio at the local mall. I remember arriving, and my manager saying, "Something insane happened in New York this morning." As the words left her mouth, we got notice that the Mall was closing, and we should head home.
I was confused, and listened intently to the radio. I remember wondering if I was in imminent danger, making this five minute drive home. Home, where I know no one would be. Despite being in college, I lived at home with my Mom and younger sisters. But my sister's were still in high school and had not been dismissed. My mom worked at a school as well, and her school stayed in session. I remember walking into the house, flipping on the television and watching, in horror, at the sight before me. I remember suddenly feeling like there was nothing safe in the world, and sickness for all those who had lost loved ones in the tragedy.
That day was real for me, a day I struggle to relate with, dancing the fine line of remembering and morbidly reliving. But as time has passed, I realize that there are people whose lives will never be the same because of the events of 9/11. There are people who lost mothers, fathers, children, spouses. For many of us, we only know what happened because the television and newspapers made it real to us. But to others, there were no televisions or newspapers spinning a tale of terrorism. To others, like Sarah or Jen (whose story is below), the reality came from being one of the masses running for safety on the streets of New York. Who walked the miles to get home. Who felt the earth tremble as buildings collapsed. Who had to wash the ashes from their hair.
9/11 is a remarkable day in history for me.
9/11 is a first-hand traumatic account for them.
I hope reading Jen and Sarah's stories, you'll catch a glimpse of what some of our brothers and sisters from New York City have to live with for the rest of their lives.
It's difficult for me to commit to paper what happened on September 11. Mostly because it wasn't a single day to me. It was weeks and months strung together in surreal moments. I'm making my best attempt, so please forgive me.
I moved to New York City on September 3, 2001 to attend college. I transferred from a local school, living with my parents to a very small school on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. I can actually see what my house looked like that morning when my mom and dad drove me to New York. Of course, as any person moving out of their parents house for the first time I was nervous, excited, scared- all the typical emotions you should feel on that day. The difference was- I was moving to New York City.
I started school. I moved into my “dorm.” (Which kids, didn't exactly acclimate me to NYC. Granted, I lived with 4 other girls but it was a 2 bedroom, two bathroom apartment on Roosevelt Island- google it- with a balcony- but any New Yorker would tell you that's almost like living in a mansion). I made friends with my roommates, we went out once or twice and all of us started classes. In fact, two days before the infamous day we got ourselves completely turned around trying to maneuver the subway system. It would be the first and the last time I would find myself standing next to the World Trade Center.
On September 11, I woke up and started getting ready. Two roommates and I had class at the same time so we were all up and getting ready to leave together. My phone rang and when I saw my mom calling me early in the morning it struck me as strange as she never called me in the morning. When I picked up the phone the conversation went something like this:
Me: Hey Mom, what's up?
Mom: Hi. What are you doing?
Me: I'm getting ready for class. Why?
Mom: Um, do you think that's a good idea?
Me: Uh, it's like the second week of class.
Mom: You may want to turn on your television
Mom: Just go.
To which I went and turned on the TV. The first plane had hit the towers. I didn't really know what to make of it. It was surreal. I didn't feel fear. I wasn't anxious. Looking back , I don't really know what was going through my brain. I calmly finished the conversation with my mom:
Me: OK. I'm going to school
Mom: You think that's a good idea?
Me: It's the second week of class. I can't miss
Mom: Um, ok.
Me: Alright, I'll talk to you later. Bye.
Thirty year old Jennifer would like to say to nineteen year old Jennifer “WHAT THE FUCK ARE YOU THINKING?! STAY IN THE HOUSE YOU IDIOT!” But no, I was a kid... or just a complete moron. Don't judge me. I always get on my Mom's case about this conversation. YOU'RE MY MOTHER! YOU COULD HAVE JUST FORBID ME TO GO TO CLASS! You did not. So I went to class.
I remember walking to the subway station. Getting to the train required us to walk by the East River which gave you a picturesque view of the Manhattan skyline - only on this morning there were the towers- with black smoke billowing out the sides. Still this idiot kept walking to go to class.
I must have made the last train into Manhattan. Subway cars are normally quiet. There's occasional chit chat- but for that many people to be stuck in such a contained space, there really isn't a whole lot of noise. It would be like you having a conversation with the guy driving the car next to you. You are your own car. You do your thing to get to school or work or wherever- even if you are nearly sitting on a strangers lap - but on this day it was different. People quietly talked to one another about what was going on. At this time, no one was saying the word terrorist. It was all speculation. One thing that outsiders need to understand is- we knew WAY less than you did. I remember one woman on the train saying to another “I have a friend on the 110th floor. She just started a new job and has kids.” If that woman was telling the truth.... well, it's one thing that still haunts me.
I got to school. Sat in class and midway through the class a woman from the school came into the room. She apologized for interrupting class and stated that all classes are cancelled for the rest of the day and that all students living on Roosevelt Island (aw, crap, that's me) will need to sleep at the school as all bridges, tunnels and subways are closed. The professor (who I sh*t you not looked like the Lorax) looked up from his desk and calmly asked, "Why?” You see, this man had been teaching since 8:30am. He was completely and utterly oblivious to anything going on outside.
“HA! No way are the subways closed. This is New York! Why would they do that? I'm not sleeping at school.” These were all thoughts that went through my head. Again, IDIOT. I walked to my subway station and, sure enough, subway was closed... so I walked back to school. Luckily, upon my return I ran into one of my roommates. After reuniting with my roommate, the story digresses into little snippets of events. Walking up to another set of dorms to see if someone would take us in... finding that no cash machines or credit card machines would work... sitting next to a man who politely told me they released him from a holding cell early because they needed the police elsewhere... constant sirens and the amount of people on the street who just had no place to go. I remember standing outside a restaurant. In the summer and fall, so many restaurants open their windows. On this day it served a greater purpose as people were packed up to the restaurant attempting to hear the televisions trying to get just the tiniest bit of information as to what was going on... what any of us were supposed to do. I was at the back of the crowd. Almost as the curb of the sidewalk straining to hear what was being said when- and this is a sight I will never forget, even if I tried to forget - a Stroehmann's bread truck pulled up to the curb. The back doors flew open and armed guards (I assume National Guard? Some sort of military) filed out of the back of the bread truck like a clown car. They must have been packed in like sardines. I think of it every year. How funny it seems and yet how serious it really was.
The rest of the day was spent walking. Finally the bridges were open but no trains. That meant we were walking back to our apartment. I remember walking on the streets with so many people around me and calling my little sister. My youngest sister turned 9 that day. I wished her a happy birthday. She didn't understand what was going on and why everyone was so upset on her birthday. Oh, man... just how do you start that conversation?
Walking... walking... walking... I walked over 10 miles that day. As we were walking over the bridge between Queens and Manhattan I stopped for a few seconds and by then the towers were gone. A mass of black smoke came from lower Manhattan. As I stood there for a few minutes I watched a fighter jet fly parallel to the ground and then rocket straight up in the sky in the opposite direction of the ground. My brain was officially on overload.
On the other side of the bridge people handed us water and donuts. Don't ask me why donuts. People were just trying to help. I should have worn different shoes. It was the second week of school... I needed to impress people! Dress shoes. BAD IDEA! Real New Yorkers wear sneakers to travel and change their shoes into something cute when they reach their destination. Lesson learned- my feet were bleeding when I finally returned to my apartment hours later, and I had to peel my blood soaked socks off.
The months following were no better. On September 12 all that remained was black smoke rising from lower Manhattan and a thick fog which covered everything as the winds blew the smoke uptown. Days later, I walked through Times Square and absorbed the faces of missing loved ones staring back from posters. I saw funerals of the policemen and the firemen. My professors told stories of working in the clean up efforts for days with out sleep and picking up body parts. Every morning on my way to class I was greeted by military personnel who set up a base at the Armory near my college. Humvees lined one street while guards lined the other. Every day my commute to school was rerouted due to bomb and anthrax scares. By Thanksgiving, I had my bag searched so many times I had lost count.
I began working for a major jewelry chain store in March of 2012. A few weeks after starting a woman came in to have her (very large) engagement ring cleaned. We spoke for some time while her ring was cleaning. She asked me what I studied in school and how I had found myself in New York City. She gave me the cliché speech about making the most out of my life, do things that I believe in, be sympathetic to others because you have not walked in their shoes... etc., etc., etc. We've all received this speech from someone in our lives: a teacher, a friend, a parent, song lyrics....
She was covered from head to toe in bandages, a clear plastic mask covered her face and a very wide brim hat covered her from sun exposure. Even though she couldn't wear her ring the day she came to get it cleaned she wanted it ready. She had been in one of the towers and had been burned over the majority of her body. She had just been released from the hospital a week before I met her. Her words would stick.
I know this has been long - and at times is only what my brain has vomited up what happened 11 years ago. Thank you for taking a few minutes to read (or skim, don't worry, I'm not mad). For most it was a day that would shape American history, but for me it shaped my personal history.
Thank you, Jen, for sharing your story with us.
And please, take a moment today to head over to read Sarah's account working across the street from the World Trade Centers that day. It will give you much to think on.
What is YOUR 9/11 story? Will you share it here today?
Leave a comment, as I would love to hear from you.